We’re back at it again with five burning questions with the enemy ahead of the Las Vegas Raiders and Indianapolis Colts Week 14 matchup. Thanks to Chris Blystone over at Stampede Blue for taking the time to answer the questions.
Here we go:
S&BP: We’re all too familiar with Philip Rivers here as Raiders fans — so with that being said, is there anything different about Rivers’ game from year’s past, or is Rivers still the same ole’ guy that we know as Raiders fans? Anything he’s doing particularly well that fans should watch out for?
SB: The same things Philip Rivers has made a career of are what he’s brought to the table in Indianapolis. He gets the ball out quickly, he is going to target the running backs early and often in the passing game, and he’s going to make really tough throws, some of which are going to end up as turnovers, some of which are going to be crushing blows to the defense. And he’s saying “dadgummit” a lot.
While Rivers wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders early, he’s shown a great command of the offense, but struggled early to develop a rapport with his new slate of receivers. Over the past few weeks, he has seemed to get a comfort level with several of his offensive weapons and has looked very dialed in. That said, as Raiders fans know, Rivers is prone to mind-bogglingly bad decisions on occasion, so basically anything is possible.
One thing worth watching is that Rivers is playing with a foot injury that the team has already said will require surgery in the offseason. While Rivers moves about as well as The Great Khali (anyone?) and has never been a threat to scramble, that could play a factor if the Raiders' defense can disrupt the pocket.
S&BP: It’s no surprise that the Raiders offensive line has been ‘suspect’ in pass protection this year, and knowing that, is there a specific pass-rusher that the Raiders should key on this week as a potential mismatch for this offensive line?
SB: There are several. The Colts don’t have the traditional pass-rush on the outside. Their edge players on passing downs are Kemoko Turay and Justin Houston. Turay was on a tear last year when he suffered a nasty ankle injury. He still hasn’t shown he is back to full speed despite lots of promise in his young career. Houston has been a good, not great pass-rusher. He’s got 7.5 sacks this season, but they haven’t been because of his speed. He’s savvy, strong, and knows how to take advantage of a good stunt.
The players you need to be aware of are the two guys in the middle. DeForest Buckner is a menace at the 3-tech, and he can single-handedly take over the game on defense. If the Raiders’ interior offensive linemen don’t eat their Wheaties, they could be in for a rough day. The other beneficiary of Buckner’s presence on the inside is Grover Stewart. He’s the Colts nose tackle and has gotten consistent penetration so far this season and caused issues in both the run and the pass. The Colts' strength is on the interior and that’s where I expect them to have the most success.
S&BP: Xavier Rhodes seems to be playing top-notch football once again this year. Is this a career revitalization for the former All-Pro?
SB: It absolutely is. Rhodes has been perhaps the steal of the offseason, signing a 1-year deal with the Colts for $3M, for which they’ve gotten a borderline All-Pro season out of him. He adds a veteran voice to a young team and locked down the Colts’ top cornerback position where before it was a bit of a question mark. He has played smart and is a really good scheme fit with the Colts, which is what has made the match work. In recent weeks, it seems that quarterbacks have chosen to mainly avoid throwing his way, because he’s also been on form taking the ball away.
S&BP: Three running backs have carried the ball at least 67 times this year — which running back should the Raiders be most worried about this weekend?
SB: Frank Reich values being unpredictable, so that is a tough thing to say for certain, but if I had to guess, it would be rookie Jonathan Taylor. Taylor was thrust into a starting role when Marlon Mack ruptured his Achilles back in Week 1. Despite his pedigree, Taylor has not been great this season. He struggled early on with indecisiveness as he adjusted to the size of the holes and the speed of defenses. The Colts want desperately to run the ball, so they kept using him, but he definitely didn’t take the backfield by storm.
In recent weeks, however, something seems to have snapped into place for Taylor, who is running more patiently, and seems to be seeing the field better. Last week against the Texans, he had his best game as a pro and has hit a groove as far as the running game goes. I’d expect Reich to look his way because he has by far the most potential. His speed and physicality give him an edge the other two backs don’t have, and if he gets out wide for swing passes, he can take one to the house with ease.
Even if Taylor is the guy, I would be surprised if the Colts don’t use Nyheim Hines a good bit. He is second in targets as a receiver only to T.Y. Hilton, and his role as a receiving back and outlet for Rivers has been significant.
S&BP: Prediction time, but not for who wins it: Which players will have the biggest impact on this week’s game, one on offense and one on defense, for the Colts?
SB: The easy answer here is DeForest Buckner, but my pick is Grover Stewart for the Colts defense. It isn’t often that a nose tackle gets that kind of love, but Stewart is having a big breakout season, and he’s doing it because Buckner is constantly demanding double teams. If the Raiders don’t double team Buckner, this will be an ugly game, so it is a virtual certainty that Stewart will get favorable looks. He’s not a guy who is filling up the stat sheet, but I expect him to be an impact player.
On offense, T.Y. Hilton has found his footing and he and Rivers have had a really strong connection over the past two weeks. He is the most likely guy to have a big game, but the issue with making a prediction like this about the Colts offense is that it is so balanced that it is really tough to pick out who is going to be the person to have a big game. I will say Hilton, but with very little confidence about that pick.